'LD' – What Might Have Been
Evertonians might always wonder what kind of lasting impact Landon Donovan, the last Goodison No.9 with a goal to his name, might have had on the club had he opted to play full-time for the Blues but perhaps it's fitting that his legacy will be unquestionably American.
22 October 2014
He only made 17 appearances in the Royal Blue Jersey over two short loan spells. There may also be some lingering regret that he didn't ever feel compelled to tear himself away from his native California to play on Merseyside on a full-time basis. Regardless, Landon Donovan clearly fell in love to a degree with Everton and, like his one-time team-mate and off-field friend Tim Cahill, Evertonians took "LD" to their hearts and he will always feel like "one of us".
At what is a relatively young age for a modern-day footballer, Donovan is retiring from the game when the Major League Soccer season ends later this year at the age of 32. He bowed out of the international game this month when the USA took on Ecuador in a friendly in Connecticut but did so with more than a tinge of regret and bitterness that he wasn't part of his country's exploits at the 2014 World Cup this past summer.
He is almost five years younger than Sylvain Distin – to draw a comparison with an active Everton player – and, superficially at least, still in great shape but, as he reveals in a new Grantland Features series produced by Men In Blazers' Roger Bennett, he is no longer the fresh-faced kid he once was and father time might have caught up with him earlier than other players.
How much was down to the nagging from his body or the psychological fatigue that might come from carrying the mantle of being the most decorated and recognisable footballer your country has ever produced is unclear, but it always seemed likely that "LD", one of the game's more complicated characters, would hang up his boots earlier than most players.
Donovan's rise to fame as the poster boy of US "soccer" was set against the backdrop of rapid growth for the sport in a country that, historically, has had very little passion or interest in what is otherwise the world's game. Football was hailed in the 1970s and 1980s as America's "sport of the future", but while the genesis of the rapid expansion in interest in football across The Pond to the levels we see today was arguably the 1994 World Cup, it accelerated noticeably after the tournament in South Korea/Japan in 2002.
That year, a Donovan-inspired USA team shocked Portugal in the group phase (the Americans' second goal would officially go down as an own goal but it was Landon's cross that was deflected past Vitor Baia) and then recorded one of the most famous victories in their history when they beat Mexico 2-0 in the next round, a match forever known in US soccer folklore as Dos a Cero.
Donovan eclipsed those achievements in his first World Cup eight years later in South Africa with arguably the most thrilling moment in his country's footballing history thus far – the stoppage-time winner over Algeria that sent the USA through to the second round as winners of England's group and cemented his status as America's marquee player.
He seemed then to be at the peak of his career. He had used his first loan spell with Everton earlier in the year as a preparation exercise to not only maintain his fitness and conditioning during the MLS off-season but also to familiarise himself with the English players he and his countrymen would face in the group stage in Rustenburg that summer.
It was a move that proved to be a match made in heaven, one that left Blues fans hankering for more and went a long way towards providing Donovan some measure of vindication from the doubt about him that grew out of his failed spell with Bayern Munich the year before.
Having faced years of criticism for a perceived lack of willingness to challenge himself in Europe, Donovan appeared ready to grab the opportunity to silence the doubters when he arrived at the Bundesliga giants where he would first encounter the current USA manager, Jurgen Klinsmann. "I want to make it here. It is my dream. I want stay here a few years," he said. Despite impressing in pre-season, however, he would make just six substitute appearances before returning to America, Bayern having elected not to offer him a longer-term deal. Scrutiny over his ability, his merits versus the world's best, and his mentality would continue, at least for another year.
There are few sporting environments less forgiving that the English Premier League and it was there that Donovan would find some redemption with Everton, however. From his first assist in the snow flurries at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in January 2010 to his final substitute's appearance in another 2-2 draw at St Andrews three months later, Landon was a revelation in a Blues side that had struggled for balance all season given its reliance on the left-sided axis of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar.
He scored two goals – he would have had three but for an incomprehensible miss at White Hart Lane that, had he not put the chance into the side-netting, might have earned a draw against Tottenham – and embedded himself into the affections of Everton's fans who clamoured for him to stay beyond the initial terms of his 10-week loan deal with Los Angeles Galaxy. His focus remained on his country and the 2010 World Cup, though, and he dutifully returned to the US for pre-season training.
Hopes that Landon would return to Everton for another loan spell in early 2011 were dashed by the player himself. Citing the rigours of a busy 2010 and the need to rest his mind and body, Donovan elected to stay in California. His assertion that Goodison Park was the only place he would have considered going had he been of a mind to embark on another loan spell was heartening and offered hope that he might yet opt to crown his career with a full-time role with the Toffees.
"I never considered being loaned to a club other than Everton," he said at the time, "but I have been playing nearly non-stop for the past two years and I believe that this decision will allow me to perform at my best for the Galaxy and the national team throughout the upcoming year."
He would make his return the following year, signing up for a two-month loan between the beginning of January and the end of February 2012, and while his second, injury-disrupted stint never really hit the heights of his first in terms of goals, he played more minutes and weighed in with six assists. And there remained a strong desire from Everton to bring the now 30 year-old Landon to Goodison on a permanent basis.
Whether the player himself was of a similar mind is unclear but the prospect was a non-starter at the time as David Moyes was unable to afford him anyway, but the acid test for Donovan's desire to finally commit to proving himself at the very top level would come as his contract in Los Angeles wound down over the following 18 months. The belief was that if Everton had truly touched him enough and his desire to play for the Blues on a permanent basis was strong enough, then him being in the latter stages of his MLS deal – when he could be purchased for a modest fee – was surely his last opportunity to make the dream happen.
Unfortunately, the toll of regular professional action on both his body and mind would prompt him to take a sabbatical from the game later in 2012. He answered criticism of his decision and questions over his attitude by challenging the bravado and "go 'til you drop" mentality prevalent in much of modern sport but there was still disappointment at Everton that, even once he made the decision to return to the game, he elected to stay in America. The comforts of home, a diminishing love for the game and the consequent loss of motivation all contributed, perhaps, to Landon deciding to remain with the Galaxy and reaffirming his commitment to the domestic game in the United States.
He didn't get to sign off on the biggest stage as he would have wished – he maintains that Klinsmann, in his heart of hearts, knows that Donovan should have been one of the the 23 that went to Brazil – but he has gone on to become the all-time top goalscorer in Major League Soccer with 136 goals to date and bowed out at international level as his country's top goalscorer with 56. At the time of his retirement from the USMNT, only his LA team-mate Robbie Keane had more goals for his country among active players.
Evertonians will likely wonder what might have been had he made the leap across the Pond to play a full season or two with the Blues, although possibly more from our perspective than his. For the player himself, it seems as those two short loan spells were enough to put to bed the criticism that he wasn't good enough to cut it in football's elite leagues. He fell for the Blues but not hard enough, perhaps, to prompt him to upset the life balance he always found in California.
And it is perhaps fitting that as the first true star of US men's soccer, the pinnacle of his achievements all concern the game in his home country, a sentiment promulgated by MLS commissioner Don Garber in August when he said: "Landon is to MLS, what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL and Tiger Woods was to the PGA Tour, a player whose sporting accomplishments and popularity transformed their respective leagues and set a new standard for how the game would be played."